Institute for the Study for Social Change Professor Richard Eccleston looks at the 2019 Federal Election outcome.

Talking Point: Bridging the divide in Tasmania

This opinion piece by Institute for the Study of Social Change Director Professor Richard Eccleston, first appeared in the Mercury newspaper on Monday 20 May 2019.

PRIME Minister Scott Morrison has defied the odds and opinion polls to win what appears to be a third term for the Coalition Government.

Tasmania, and the northern seats of Bass and Braddon, were always going to be key elements of a Coalition victory and so it proved to be.

The dust is a long way from settling on the 2019 result.

It will be days until there is a final result in Bass and Wentworth, which will determine whether the Coalition has a majority or is forced to govern in minority.

Post-election commentary and analysis will inevitably focus on the campaign, personalities and policy implications of the result.

These are important issues, but elections also provide deeper insights into the changing nature of society and the challenges we face.

Despite uncertainty about the result, more fundamental trends are becoming increasingly clear from a state and national perspective.

Tasmania is a microcosm of the national election result with inner urban electorates becoming more progressive while regional seats have swung to the Coalition.

Across-the-board support for independents, minor parties and the informal vote was up reflecting broad-based voter disillusionment.

The fault lines between cities and regions, younger and older voters and those benefiting from the knowledge economy and those who don’t, have been growing in Europe and North America. They are now becoming more evident in Australia. Established political parties across western democracies are struggling to develop compelling narratives and policies that can span these divides and respond to the disparate interests of an increasingly fragmented electorate.

The good news is that the social and economic divides in Australia are not as severe or entrenched as they are in the US and Britain. But they are evident in the election result.

Nationally there were swings to both One Nation and the United Australia Party at the expense of Labor in Queensland and regional Australia, while the informal vote was at historic highs.

In contrast, Tony Abbott’s affluent Sydney seat of Warringah was claimed in a landslide victory by independent Zali Steggall, who is advocating more concerted climate change action.

Similar trends were evident here in Tasmania. It seems clear that Labor’s Justine Keay will lose Braddon, having suffered a 5 per cent two-party preferred swing to Liberal challenger Gavin Pearce.

However, there was a 4 per cent swing against the Liberals on the primary vote, with Liberal-aligned independent Craig Brakey securing 11 per cent while the informal vote was more than 7 per cent.

Bass is again on a knife edge. Sitting Labor member Ross Hart is trailing his Liberal challenger Bridget Archer by 350 votes with about 12,000 pre-poll votes to count. The final result in Bass may determine whether the Coalition can govern in its own right or whether it has to rely on the likes of the Katter Australia Party.

Bass and Braddon continue to be both marginal and volatile and will be a focus for future federal governments.

Any hopes the Liberals had of securing the rural seat of Lyons were dashed with the resignation of their candidate Jessica Whelan midway through the campaign. Labor’s Brian Mitchell was returned with a small swing as was sitting member Julie Collins in Franklin.

In Clark, independent Andrew Wilkie secured more than 50 per cent of the primary vote while the combined Liberal and Labor vote was just 37 per cent.

The fact that almost two-thirds of voters in Hobart didn’t vote for either of the major parties highlights the fundamental challenges facing our political parties and system of government more generally.

Voters appear to be increasingly disillusioned and disengaged. Younger urban voters are becoming more progressive but engage with issues, rather than traditional political parties. Voters in the regions who feel increasingly vulnerable in the face of social, economic and technological change, are also abandoning established parties in growing numbers. The challenge for the Morrison Government, opposition parties and for Australia more generally is to transcend the politics of division and develop a narrative and policy framework that can bring Australians together.

This is no easy task given our current political culture and a slowing economy, but it is possible.

The best example was the Hawke government which promoted a future-orientated agenda that required commitment and compromise from a broad range of stakeholders across the political spectrum.

If there is one issue where we clearly need to build a broad and stable consensus, it’s in relation to climate and energy policy. In the 1980s the priority was liberalising the Australian economy but the challenge of our age is to reduce emissions while maintaining economic growth.

A second focus must be a long-term approach to addressing the growing urban-regional divide in Australia. This is critically important to Tasmania’s future given our regional population and the growing north-south divide.

The objective is to work with communities on a long-term plan to develop the skills and the social and economic infrastructure to connect our regional communities to cities — and to take advantage of the opportunities associated with the knowledge economy. These are ambitious agendas but it’s clear from the result that citizens want new models of politics that transcend the partisanship and division evident in recent years.

Richard Eccleston is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Institute for the Study of Social Change at the University of Tasmania.

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